The great Gothic cathedrals of Europe are indeed great monuments to religious faith. However, they have their secular and political side, a side that has a lot to do with people's work.
On the west front of Amiens cathedral is a series of quartrefoil reliefs showing the zodiac signs and their corresponding monthly labors.
The work of field and farm was thought to be inevitable and as natural as the earth itself. They were part of the penalty laid upon the world for the sin of Adam. In toil and sweat would humankind earn its bread. These labors were tied to the turning of the seasons, to the cycles of growth and decay, to the very processes of life itself. The necessity of this labor, and its conditions, were considered as inevitable as the weather, and taken for granted. We will have to wait for the 18th century before this is called into question. It is here on the front of a cathedral because, in the encyclopedic world view of the High Middle Ages, since God created all things, the contemplation of anything and everything inevitably leads back to God.
In cathedrals like Chartres, a whole new class makes its presence and its new power known for the first time in history; not the clergy, not the landed nobility, and certainly not the peasantry, but the bourgeoisie, the "city dwellers," those people who make their living in trades, professions, and business.
Chartres cathedral is rightly famous for its stained glass windows. Chartres, more than any other medieval cathedral, still retains most of its original glass.
Chartres is celebrated for its 3 glorious rose windows like the North Rose above. These great showpieces of brilliant craftsmanship and complex scriptural, numerical, and geometric symbolism were the gifts of royalty. The North Rose was the gift of the Queen of France, Blanche of Castile, wife of King Phillipe Auguste.
The bulk of the cathedral's windows, including the all-important apse windows above, were the gifts of the citizens of Chartres, organized by their trade into guilds. What your guild was depended on the status of your trade. All guilds were definitely not equal. For powerful businesses like bankers and cloth manufacturers, the guild was a cartel controlling prices and market demand. For other trades like carpenters, the guild served as a kind of labor union advocating for its members. For poorer trades like barrel makers, the guild served as a kind of mutual aid society. All the guilds ran the medieval city collectively in a government called a "commune," which was nothing like the collective communities of social drop-outs from 40 years ago.
The guilds had these windows made to glorify God, and to glorify themselves and their trades. For example, here is the splendid Noah window from Chartres.
When we look closely into the beautiful colors and patterns of this window, we can see the story of Noah.
Prominent at the very bottom of the window (and the first thing visible when the window is seen in its original context above eye level) is a picture of the people responsible for donating the window, the carpenters of the town of Chartres.
And here they are cutting a beam out of a log. This window is as much testimony to new political and economic clout as it is to religious faith.
The stonemasons who built Chartres Cathedral had themselves portrayed proudly at work cutting jamb statues on their window.
The old truism about humble anonymous craftsmen working on the cathedrals is just that, a truism. In fact, we know the names of a lot of the master masons of the great cathedrals and what they were responsible for, such as Robert de Montreuil, Jean d'Orbais, Villard d'Honnecourt, etc.
The cathedrals are testaments to renewed civic pride as well as piety, and towns and cities became very competitive over who could build the biggest and finest churches.
The Gothic style was created in the royal abbey of Saint Denis under the direction of its abbot, Suger, in the middle of the 12th century. It was a deliberate creation out of religious and political motivations. Suger, a brilliant man from a poor background, not only was head of the abbey, but a close friend of Kings Louis VI and Louis VII, and head of the French government. The French Royal House actively promoted this style of art, and encouraged the building of new cathedrals in the new style. Suger was part of the beginning of the long project of French history to centralize power in the monarchy at the expense of the regional nobility. This project would come to full fruition in the reign of King Louis XIV. The monarchy tried to create a new power base in an alliance with the Church, and even more importantly, with this new rising class in the reborn cities, the bourgeoisie.
This political project was full of difficulties and contradictions. In a sign of things to come, the people of the city of Laon were forced to pay ruinous taxes to rebuild the city's cathedral. The people rose up and killed their bishop. The city took over the construction and its financing. The people of Reims went on strike rather than pay the tax imposed by their bishop to pay for their cathedral's construction.